How social media silences opinion

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In a 2006 open letter, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg wrote, “I wanted to create an environment where people could share whatever information they wanted…” Five years later, his blog reaffirmed those goals in the aspirational tone that’s become characteristic of Silicon Valley: “We will serve you as best we can and work every day to provide you with the tools for you to share with each other and the world.”

Evan Williams and Noah Glass, two of Twitter’s co-founders, had a similar vision. According to the New York Times, they believed, “Twitter was a service for people to talk about what was going on around them, to share news and information.”

These social networks were intended as places to share whatever information and news you found fit—places in which to start a conversation. These were venues outside of school or the workplace where you could engage with friends and get responses from people you may no longer see day-to-day.

However, hopes that these social networks would break down barriers, increase conversation, and bring new perspectives have gone unfulfilled, according a new study by the Pew Research Internet Project. 

In fact, the opposite has occurred. Not only are people less willing to discuss controversial topics on social media, but users of Facebook and Twitter are also less likely to discuss controversial topics face-to-face. In other words, social media actually encourages people to disengage in the real world.

The study used the Snowden-NSA story as its test topic. While 86 percent of Americans surveyed were willing to have an in-person conversation about the topic, less than half that number were willing to post about it. Facebook and Twitter users who log onto those sites several times a day were half as likely to discuss their opinion with friends at a restaurant. Even if their Facebook friends agreed with them on the issue, they were still less likely (0.74 times) to voice their opinion on the topic.

What does this mean? Well, it falls in line with other recent studies that suggest people tend to do what others do. In a well-known study for which Facebook came under fire, the site manipulated users’ news feeds. Some users would see more positive content populating their feeds, while others were presented with more negative content. Whatever the tone, however, users tended to create and post more content of a similar tone—something that will probably push Facebook to filter content to maintain a cheerier experience.

Another study delivered political mobilization messages to 61 million Facebook users during the 2010 US Congressional elections. The study found:

[The] messages not only influenced the users who received them but also the users’ friends and friends of friends. The effect of social transmission on real-world voting was greater than the direct effect of the messages themselves, and nearly all the transmission occurred between ‘close friends’ who were more likely to have a face-to-face relationship. These results suggest that strong ties are instrumental for spreading both online and real-world behavior in human social networks.

All of these studies indicate that messages have a ripple effect throughout social media. What you say influences what others say, as well as how likely they are to speak up or take action. For this reason, it’s troubling that many people self-censor. After all, for half of the social media users who were unwilling to discuss Snowden face-to-face, all that it took was hearing a few more perspectives like their own. 

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